The Indiana Supreme Court ruled Wednesday upholding the dismissal of a Catholic school teacher who had contracted a same-sex marriage.

“Religious freedom protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution encompasses the right of religious institutions ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government,’” Justice Geoffrey Slaughter in the court’s Aug. 31 opinion in Joshua Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

“This principle, known as the church-autonomy doctrine … applies in this case and requires its dismissal.”

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis commented that the court had “unanimously protected the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ right to ensure students and families receive an authentic Catholic education.”

Luke Goodrich, VP and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the archdiocese, said: “Courts can’t decide what it means to be Catholic—only the Church can do that. By keeping the judiciary out of religious identity, the Indiana Supreme Court just protected all religious institutions to be free from government interference in deciding their core religious values.” 

“The court’s decision today was a commonsense ruling in favor of our most fundamental rights,” said Goodrich. “Religious schools will only be able to pass down the faith to the next generation if they can freely receive guidance from their churches on what their faith is. We are grateful the court recognized this healthy form of separation of church and state.” 

The lawsuit against the archdiocese was filed by Joshua Payne-Elliott, a former teacher at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. In 2017, Payne-Elliott entered a same-sex marriage with another Catholic school teacher in the archdiocese, Layton Payne-Elliott.

According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an attorney for the archdiocese, the archdiocese for two years considered what action to take before instructing both Cathedral High and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, where Layton Payne-Elliott taught, that their employment could not continue. The same-sex marriage had violated Church teaching, the archdiocese said.  

Brebeuf refused the archbishop’s request, and the archdiocese in response revoked the school’s “Catholic” status. That revocation is on hold, as the school appealed to the Congregation for Catholic Education.

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Cathedral High School, however, terminated Joshua Payne-Elliott’s contract in June 2019. After reaching a settlement with the school, he filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese in August 2019.

Slaughter’s judgement to dismiss Payne-Elliott’s lawsuit under church autonomy was concurred with by two other justices; a fourth member of the Indiana Supreme Court did not participate in the case.

The suit had been dismissed by a court in May 2021, but was reinstated by the Indiana Court of Appeals that November.

Slaughter held that since the archdiocese’s communications with Cathedral High regarded internal Church policy and administration and did not end in a criminal act, the employment decision and the communication that led to it fell under church autonomy.

Cathedral High School leaders said in a June 2019 letter that Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis “made it clear” that the school’s “continued employment of a teacher in a public, same-sex marriage would result in our forfeiting our Catholic identity due to our employment of an individual living in contradiction to Catholic teaching on marriage.”

“Therefore, in order to remain a Catholic Holy Cross School, Cathedral must follow the direct guidance given to us by Archbishop Thompson and separate from the teacher,” said the letter, signed by Matt Cohoat, chairman of Cathedral High School’s board of directors, and Rob Bridges, the school’s president.

Archdiocesan policy states that Catholic schools must clearly state in their contracts and job descriptions that teachers must uphold and support the teachings of the Church in their lives.

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In June 2019, the archdiocese said of teachers that “it is their duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. To effectively bear witness to Christ, whether they teach religion or not, all ministers in their professional and private lives must convey and be supportive of Catholic Church teaching.”

Archbishop Thompson has emphasized that Payne-Elliott was not fired for having same-sex attraction, but for entering into a same-sex marriage. The matter, he said in 2019, “is about public witness of Church teaching on the dignity of marriage as one man and one woman. That is our Church teaching.”

“In this particular case we’re dealing with, those are ministers in our Church. Teachers, guidance counselors, other leaders, leaders of the schools and other leaders in the archdiocese are bound to live out these principles,” he said.